VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Catholic Church’s response to cases of sexual abuse by priests is crucial to its credibility and it must “acknowledge and make amends for” even decades-old cases, a Vatican spokesman said on Saturday.
The church is reeling from a series of media reports this week that Pope Benedict, before being elected pontiff, may have looked the other way in the case of the abuse of hundreds of boys by a priest at an American school for the deaf.
The Vatican has denied any cover-up in the abuse of 200 deaf boys by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from the 1950s to the 1960s, after the New York Times reported he was not defrocked despite warnings sent to the Vatican and to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the church’s top doctrinal official, now Pope Benedict.
The New York Times report came after many new allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Europe, especially in Ireland and Germany, with pressure on bishops to resign for failing to report cases to civil authorities.
“The nature of this issue is bound to attract media attention and the way the church responds is crucial for its moral credibility,” said the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, to Vatican Radio.
Although the cases cited happened long ago, “even decades ago, acknowledging them and making amends to the victims is the price for reestablishing justice and looking to the future with renewed vigor, humility and confidence,” Lombardi said.
The Vatican spokesman defended action taken by the church to educate priests and lay members of the church about abuse. While warning against complacency, Lombardi said the number of cases reported had fallen by more than 30 percent in the past year and most of those “concern events of over 30 years ago.”
He said “any non-superficial observer” could see “the authority of the pope” and of the doctrinal body he once presided over — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — had not been weakened by events because of the firm response.
Supporters of Pope Benedict point to his action against the charismatic head of the priestly order The Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, after evidence emerged in 2006 confirming earlier allegations that he had abused young seminarians.
The Legion disowned its founder this week, in a move perhaps unprecedented in the history of a Catholic order. Maciel died in 2008, still a priest, but having sent by Benedict to retire to a life of “prayer and penitence.”
With the media spotlight on whether Benedict refers to the abuse cases in Easter Week ceremonies starting with Palm Sunday mass, Lombardi said prayers would focus on “the young and the people dedicated to educating and protecting them.”
He told Vatican Radio these prayers “sum up the feelings of the church at this difficult time when it confonts the plague of pedophilia.”
Reporting by Stephen Brown